Becoming Fluent with Your Emotions
Just like we strengthen our resilience when we become adept at returning from a startle/survival response to our natural baseline physiological equilibrium of calm and clear seeing, we strengthen our resilience when we become adept at returning from an angry outburst or a shame attack to our natural baseline emotional ease and well-being.
It’s very normal to be upset with yourself sometimes for even having strong emotions or not knowing how to manage them very well, but data from 25 years of neuroscience research and 25 yers of behavioral science research are now dovetailing nicely to revolutionize our thinking about what feelings are and how we can work with them.
Here’s one effective tool to get you started…
Reading and Conveying Emotions Fluently
93% of all emotional communication happens through facial expressions, body language, tone and prosody of voice; only 7% through words. Do you need words to convey your understanding of your emotions and to convey that you understand someone else’s emotions? Absolutely. But your emotional intelligence is coming from the bottom up, as your emotions do, and your emotional literacy is based on attuning to and non-verbally “reading” the felt sense of your experience, and someone else’s experience.
You strengthen the capacity of the higher brain to attune to and recognize the flavors of the emotions you experience as you go through the day by practicing doing that. Like reps at the gym.
1. Recruit a partner to participate in this exercise with you. Allow 30 minutes for you each to have a turn.
2. Begin practicing with five of the most basic emotions — anger (from irritation to rage), fear (from worry to terror), sadness (from oh pooh to overwhelming grief), joy (from delight to euphoria), disgust (from annoyance to contempt). This exercise is done without words to strengthen the capacities of your pre-frontal cortex to perceive and interpret the non-verbal expressions of these signals without the assist of the language processing centers of the brain. Practicing with core emotions builds your capacities for attunement, which can then be refined later to read more nuanced emotions such as disappointment, jealousy, guilt, and curiosity.
3. Decide the order in which you will evoke each of these five emotions -anger, fear, sadness, joy, and disgust – without telling your partner. Recalling previous experiences of each emotion is a quick and easy way for you to experience the emotion again internally.
4. Tune in to your own experience of the first emotion you’ve chosen to work with, and then let your body wordlessly display the chosen emotion for ten seconds. Maintain eye contact with your partner. You can use gestures, facial expressions, and sounds – just not words. You may find yourself exaggerating your expressions at first, that’s okay. Your partner makes notes about which emotion he is reading from your expression but doesn’t disclose it yet. Notice what happens inside of you — self-attunement — as your communicate your own feelings to someone else. Notice if the felt sense of the emotion increases, decreases, or changes into something else.
5. Without discussion yet, turn your attention inward again. Release the emotion you’ve been expressing with a few gentle, deep breaths into your heart center. Evoke the next emotion on your list, and then display that second emotion to your partner for ten seconds. Again, your partner notes the emotion, but the two of you don’t discuss anything.
6. Still without any discussion, re-focus your attention inward, evoke the next emotion on the list and display the feeling to your partner. Repeat the process for each emotion.
7. Even before your partner shares his best guesses at the emotions you were displaying each time, switch roles, so that your partner also displays five emotions in sequence. As you observe them, notice what signals you pay attention to – facial expressions, body language, the tone or rhythm of sounds – to distinguish one emotion from another. And notice what happens inside you as you perceive your partner’s feelings.
8. When your partner has finished, each of you share your best guesses at the emotions the other one was trying to convey, and reveal how you each identified each emotion. Discuss any discrepancies.
If all the guesses were accurate, congratulations to both of you! You’re building your emotional literacy. If there were discrepancies, take the opportunity to discuss what you perceived in each other’s expression of emotion that led you to a different interpretation. You are each strengthening the pre-frontal cortex’s capacities for expressing and attuning to emotions, the foundation of building more competence in communicating what you need, in developing the skills you need to get those needs met, and in empathizing with others as they express their needs.